- Advocates say agroecological systems are the way to meet the climate crisis in its fullness — from limiting emissions to coping with climatic shocks — provided it gets the support of national governments and international donors.
- They are pushing for agroecology to be considered a climate solution by leaders at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt later this month.
- The agroecology movement is forged around opposition to the mindless transplantation of large-scale industrial agriculture to African countries, which is also one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in more industrialized nations like the U.S.
- But its direct impacts on carbon budgets and effectiveness as an adaptation tool are understudied. Proponents like Bridget Mugambe say this hurdle could be overcome with adequate funding.
With 350 million people facing food insecurity on the continent, most African nations face a quandary: how to vanquish hunger and meet the climate challenge. The continent is warming faster than the rest of the world, despite contributing less than 5% of global carbon emissions historically.
Advocates say that farming based on ecological principles could be vital to tackling this dual challenge, provided it gets the support of national governments and international donors. Groups like the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) are pushing for this agricultural strategy to be recognized as a climate solution by national leaders at the U.N. climate summit that will be held in Egypt later this month.
Agroecological systems are the way to meet the climate crisis in its fullness — from limiting emissions to coping with climatic shocks — said Bridget Mugambe, program coordinator at AFSA. The alliance is a loose-knit grouping of small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fishers and Indigenous people across 50 African countries.
“It’s not just about the products or how we deal with the weather,” Mugambe told Mongabay. “Agroecology puts people at the center of the system.”
The organization promotes agroecological food systems as environmentally sound, socially just and culturally appropriate. This means channeling biological processes such as photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation to boost yields, and using crop residues for compost. Soil enriched by organic compost and mulch retains more water, replenishing the water table and ensuring water availability during dry spells. It could mean turning to more drought-resistant native crops. For example, where crops like millet can’t survive in drier conditions, farmers could substitute it with orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
Placing food production in its social and cultural context ensures that the needs of small farmers are met, not just as producers but also as consumers of food. The agroecology movement is forged around opposition to industrial agriculture with its commodification of nourishment, crippling dependence on synthetic inputs, and heavy reliance on machinery and technological fixes.
This latter food production regime, the norm in the U.S. and European nations, is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., agriculture accounts for an estimated 10-11% of total GHG emissions, mostly in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4).
In recent decades, African governments have pushed agribusiness and industrial-scale farming to boost agricultural productivity. But for agroecology proponents, just greening factory-like food production is not the answer to sustainably feeding a growing population. It is a distinct vision where cultivating land is not reduced to an exercise in maximizing yields.
But part of the problem with hailing agroecology as a climate solution is that it comes in many flavors, some stronger than others. Hard-core agroecology backers shun chemical fertilizers and pesticides, genetically engineered crop varieties, and profit-driven control of a basic need.
It is this brand of agroecology that draws the sharpest criticism. Agroecologists are trying to sell a utopian ideal, according to Pacifique Nshimiyimana, a farmer in Rwanda with a degree in biotechnology. He told Mongabay that denying African farmers access to synthetic inputs could push more families into hunger.
However, many years of experience with trying to increase the availability of these inputs under the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, European and U.S. aid agencies, and private philanthropies like the Rockefeller Foundation did not result in improved yields, a recent assessment showed. It failed in its central aim of doubling yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020.
Other agroecology experts say ecological practices should be the norm and chemical inputs should be used sparingly. For example, as a last resort when dealing with devastating pest invasions.
Maintaining healthy soils is a central tenet of agroecology. Applying inorganic fertilizers may improve productivity in the short term, but can degrade the land in the long run and weaken its effectiveness as a carbon sink. Even staunch opponents like Nshimiyimana, who founded Real Green Gold Ltd., a company that partners with small-scale farmers to export bananas and avocados, recognize this. “Agroecological production is way better because it protects our soil,” he said. “As farmers, we care for our soil because that’s our first investment.”
However, he insisted that agroecology is not appropriate for every region or every crop, especially since climatic changes make some native varieties harder to grow. Agroecology can only be one of the solutions to the climate crisis, Nshimiyimana said.
Others are latching on to the climate-smart agriculture (CSA) bandwagon that privileges agriculture’s role in reducing carbon emissions and adapting to climate variability. Irene Egyir, an agricultural economist at the University of Ghana, told Mongabay that agroecology could be considered one climate-smart approach.
On the ground, too, practices defy easy categorization. Agroforestry, or planting trees on farmland, could qualify as agroecological practice and climate-smart agriculture. Despite this, the two are not synonymous. In climate-smart farming, non-native trees can be planted to sequester carbon, which wouldn’t pass muster in most variations of agroecology.
CSA programs can also reduce the emissions footprint by tailoring fertilizer applications. Urea is a nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizer commonly used in rice plantations. It releases nitric oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that makes up 7% of U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions. More measured use of urea can reduce N2O emissions, studies show.
Mugambe said agroecology offers a more holistic solution than CSA. But its precise contribution to carbon budgets and effectiveness as an adaptation tool are not well-studied.
After Cyclone Idai pummeled Africa’s eastern coast in 2019, AFSA and other partners surveyed the impact on farmers in Zimbabwe who practiced agroecology and those who didn’t. The agroecology practitioners were less impacted, their surveys suggest, because the soil could soak in more floodwaters and hold on to more nutrients. The emphasis on social aspects of farming appeared to translate into greater collective resilience through sharing seeds and labor post-disaster.
African countries receive a fraction of the climate finance they need to adapt to climatic impacts and transition to a low-carbon future. Most of the funds earmarked for agriculture support non-traditional farming schemes. “Less than 5% goes towards agroecology initiatives,” Mugambe estimated.
It is a common conundrum for nonprofits; funding for research about a strategy does not materialize without evidence that the approach works. In this case, Mugambe said funds are needed for a wide range of areas: from the nutritional profile of agroecology foods to studies on soil health that integrate traditional knowledge and modern science.
“With agroecology, people will be less prone to challenges of food security — but that would be in an ideal situation,” she said. “An ideal situation with agroecology getting the funding it should get.”
Banner image: Farmers Jean and Triphene with their orange-fleshed sweet potato crops in Rwanda. Image by Hugh Rutherford for CIP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Klimczyk, M., Siczek, A., & Schimmelpfennig, L. (2021). Improving the efficiency of urea-based fertilization leading to reduction in ammonia emission. Science of The Total Environment, 771, 145483. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.145483
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation about agroecology with world expert Dr. Vandana Shiva and UC-Santa Cruz assistant professor Maywa Montenegro, listen here: